You've got to love vengeance. No, not that awful song by Carly Simon from her 1979 album Spy. No, the type of retribution we're celebrating doesn't have Tim Curry on backing vocals and a decidedly AOR style of rock and roll mannerism. The type of revenge that's best is not served cold, "a bitch", or measured out in some punked out MTV fashion. In the land of the payback, that wonderful world where both James Brown and Mel Gibson trade archaic anecdotes, comeuppance is sweet like sugared honey. It's that splendid feeling of forced forgiveness, that satisfying sense of self-justice that has the punishment purposefully fitting, and then refitting the crime over and over again. Reprisal isn't about fairness or function. It isn't even really about the act that fostered it. No, the essence of retaliation is the knowledge of suffering, of matching a bleeding eye for an eye, a painful rectal itch twitch for a similar anal ache. Reckoning touches something primeval in us, a Neanderthal need - traceable down through our very strands of DNA - to feel fulfillment for the many wrongs wounding us throughout the course of life. So when a filmmaker places his paragon to personal penalizing up for grabs, it usually finds favor in the entertainment audience. Even if they can't get back at their grabby boss, gabby spouse or crabby kids, your average Joe and GI Jane can spend 90 minutes watching a wounded refugee of the planet Pain take his or her own angry agenda out on the scum, the slime and the sleaze - who deserve a secret crime spree spring cleaning every now - and then and feel fully vindicated. It's such a bedrock of backwards blamelessness that fosters films like Vendetta, a 1996 non-entity, directed by the husky amateur auteur George Saunders. Within its B-movie maneuvers of cops and rapists, killers and carnality, lives that juicy nugget of just deserts, the diabetically delicious saccharine savior. And it's just as tasty, even in an almost home movie format.
Jack Mason is one of those 'plays by his own rules' kinda cops that shoots first (badly, it's important to note) and writes false reports about it later. He is on a one-man mental massacre, hoping to find the fiend who raped and killed his darling, pigeon-loving 10-year-old daughter over a year before. Mason's wife Jennifer, who blames the correctional crybaby for the death of their child, has left him, and it's done wonders for her career. She's also a member of the thin blue line between crime and the citizenry, and she's just been promoted to detective, in charge of...homicide. After a warehouse slaughter in which Jack guns down several lowlifes because...well, because he had a lot of bullets, psychiatric evaluations are ordered. But all brain games are put aside when a serial killer starts stalking miscreant men who were once accused of sexual assault (each of which were freed on technicalities). This Jacky the Johnson Ripper cuts off men's members, and to make sure that the thinking process has completely ceased, she puts a bullet in their "other head" as well. Soon, all invisible evidence points to a super-secret list of rape perpetrator names only accessible to certain high-ranking police officials. And Jennifer's name is on that lend-out ledger. Is Jack's ex-wife really the Hannibal Lector of penis paring, or is there another badge wearing member of the bugbutt club working out her own anti-male agenda on the available deviants. Our dim Dirty Harry wants to know.
You've got to give Vendetta credit. It takes balls the size of boulders to mix child rape and murder, the systematic castration of suspected felons by a serial killer and some of the doughiest asexual skin scenes ever committed to film, into a erotic thriller who-done-it This is especially true when our characters are so craven, callous and kooky. Taking a page out of Basic Instinct, tossing in a little Lethal Weapon and mixing together the mean-spirited essence of classic 80s grade-Z crime films like 10 to Midnight and Eyes of a Stranger, this revenge fantasy draped in detective work is a hilarious hybrid indeed. Vendetta wants to be all things to all genre lovers, but can't seem to get out of its own way to let the blood and boobs rock and roll. Everything is cranked up several hyper-realistic notches in this nonsensical camp classic. This movie is such an overheated potboiler that any macaroni or hot dogs you have in the home will instantly simmer and stew while this movie is playing. For those looking for gunplay, the shootouts offer randomly firing squib work that resembles failed flesh tests by Tom Savini's retarded cousin. Got a hankering for some boot knocking? It's all here, and none of it is good. Instead, it's the kind of carnal love that's puffy and out of shape, sex acts resembling how bags of beef suet procreate. And for those who love police work, there are about 8000 reruns of Law and Order on every night – no need to turn to this Miranda rights violating visit to bizzaro cop world.
Something is really wrong with writer/director/actor George Saunders, aside from being named after that far more famous British fop from All About Eve. His ideas of motion picture magic are so skewed that he'd probably champion Micronesian midget snuff films if he could figure out a way to incorporate more little people into his mean streets melodramatics. This dude has got one perverted – or at least incredibly pandering – POV. Nothing is off limits in his kitchen sink view of storytelling. He starts off his little Vendetta love fest with a voice over discussion between dispatch and a detective. The two men discuss the brutal crime (the murder of the lead character's daughter) and, interspersed among the familial concerns and regards, the vile elements of the violation are nonchalantly discussed. And it only gets better. Every time Saunders, as lead law enforcer Jack Mason (funny, I thought he was an old Borscht Belt comic who got banned from The Ed Sullivan Show – oh well) describes the events that took his child from him, he has to make sure that the "sodomy" part is emphasized (as in "she was raped, SODOMIZED, and then murdered..."). Director Saunders also gives us insight into his personal ideas about stress management. Mason and his ladyloves lie down in sin in such a way as to suggest ritualistic sacrifice and speaking in tongues, according to post-coital conversations between the boot knockers. Apparently, the best way to purge your inner demons is to screw like one.
All of this feeds into Saunder's fetish for skin and side arms, flesh and firing pins. His characters casually carry their pistols like prop comics and no one dresses like members of the police department. All the men are either untucked shirt slobs or overly groomed insurance salesmen, and the female fuzz don't feel feminine until they're slinking around in evening dresses or tight-fitting t-shirts (sans brassiere, of course). The actors assigned the job of being perverts, pedophiles and sexual predators all come from the archetypal school of swarthy scumbags, radiating both revulsion and porn star charm at the same time. Indeed, nobody really offers a realistic portrayal of the underpaid professionals and oversexed sickos that this movie wants to wallow in. Everyone acts like a day player from a yeast infection advertisement or an infomercial for Hair Club for Men (both before and after). Yet this is the universe Saunders drops us in, leaving us no naturalistic life preserver or pair of subtly water wings to keep us afloat. No, this delirious director wants us to drown in his pool of preposterousness, dog paddle around in his direct narrative contradictions and sense the shark of salaciousness and the barracuda of bunk nibbling at our already-raisining toes. Vendetta is Naked Gun, once removed, with the jokes replaces by semi-serious attempts at high-voltage banter and fake sound affected fisticuffs.
So why, then is Vendetta so much motherscratching fun? Why does it succeed in finding the entertainment sweet spot when so many other similar cine-enemas offer no such soothing relief? Maybe it's because Saunders is super serious about this stuff. He must think he is doing God's own good work by proving that victims of violent crime should just stop whining about how mad as Hell they are, junk the judicial system and pick up an axe to address the matter, personally. Perhaps he has an aesthetic itch that acting (he supposedly performed in The Hunt for Red October, The Darkening and Stolen Sex Tapes) or writing (penning such prurient product as Making Waves, Bloodsport 4: The Dark Kumite and Blind Obsession) just won't satisfy, no matter how often he scratches (and how infected the results). Nope, Georgie must love it behind the lens. He must have a vampiric craving for the taste of b-movie blood. He is able to work out all the issues in his wounded, warped psyche throughout the course of his crazed compositions and faux framing...and he gets to bed the babes as well. Heck, not even Hitchcock made this manner of Rorschach test storytelling so blatant. A movie is not just an amusement for our portly producer; it's a chance to get back at every casting agent who told him to drop a few stone. Apparently unaffected by appearing semi-naked on film, Saunders shows why he is frequently called the "human pone" by many of his friends. Between his behemoth ass, ample gut and gratuitous, constantly growing bald spot, Saunders is as surreal a sensation in front of as he is behind the camera. He wants to prove that even men who eat a diet of nothing but pork rinds and spray cheese can get laid too.
As for the rest of his cast, Joey Travolta should really sue Mike Nichols for not casting him as the Bill Clinton clone in Primary Colors. Aside from resembling his more famous sibling when he played Marlon Brando on SNL, Joey has the slick Willy freaky hair styling down to a bloated bit of beauty. And bit is the right word. Billed third in this 86-minute movie, he appears 60 minutes in and emotes for five whole minutes, only to disappear from the narrative forever. And it's too bad. Wanna see what Johnny boy will look like in Grease 3? Take a gander at his goitered brother. Equally evocative in his fright mask facade is Richard Lynch that b-movie and television icon best known for having a face only a burn unit could love (funny how both visual anomalies, Lynch and Travolta, play psychiatrists in this film. What does that say about Saunder's mental hopscotch, huh?). His minor moments as a police shrink are some of the most calm and compressed performing in the whole film. As for the leading ladies, Vanessa Giorgio thinks she is channeling Sharon Stone by way of Diane Whittlesey, but in actuality, she's Marilyn Chambers recalling her love of the now deceased German artist named Falco. Only Monica Baber, as red herring/real killer (?) Trish gets to do any real acting, wobbling efficiently between sexy and psycho with surprising ease. Between the ultra-convoluted plotting, point and shoot directorial style and the wealth of weirdness wafting through this film, you expect it to eventually implode under the weight of its own unctuousness. But instead Vendetta finds an avenue for amusement, a strange symbiosis of stupid and strained that ends up being super duper fun.
Strange as it may seem and against all the odds, Vendetta does manage to work, not unlike a migrant farm hand with one arm tied behind his back. As it chugs along from 5 mph car chase scene to rockets red glare fireworks firefight, Saunders and his ready and willing Central Casting rejects instill this film with all the elements that make for crazy camp and kitschy cult classicism. From the gonad knifing and slob sex to the super sincere partner/sidekick who, with a baby on the way and a seemingly picture perfect existence, is just one "I'm getting to old for this shit" away from a date with the dirt nap, and you've got the most peculiar payback semi-softcore porno ever build on the back of child rape and a married couple of police officers. Sure, the effects are special if you're using the handicapped Olympics definition of the term. Definitely all the street scenes seem to take place in abandoned factories or access roads near airstrips. A Victorian red house suddenly turns ranch and pus yellow in the close-up. And during several key scenes (at a strip club or during a gun fight) a single shot is repeated multiple times to help misdirect the mise-en-scene (the fat butthead with the never-empty shotgun is a real treat). But it's all part of Vendetta's harmless, hopeless charms. Like NASCAR or Okie Noodling, it is an entity that requires nothing more than a belly full of beer, a barco-lounger full of burritos and a brain full of bad ideas to be enjoyed. Vendetta is a movie for the people, by the people, because of the really low standards set by most of the people. It is dumb, dirty and dithering, but it still provides the ersatz escape movies are known for. Just watch out for the exploding blood bags. They may misfire from time to time.
Shot for what must have been the equivalent of Saunder's Rogaine treatments, the 1.33:1 full screen transfer is flat and lifeless. The colors limp along without any real vibrancy and everything appears to be shot through a thick haze of malaise. It's no different than most independent fare made in the mid-80s. Too bad this movie dates from 1996.
In a word, adequate. In a couple of words, very adequate. About the only thing missing from the Dolby Digital Stereo soundtrack is a kick-ass rock song, a celebration of crime fighting full of power chords and cheesy choice lyrics along the lines of "vengeance is mine/ but you have my heart" or "payback's a bitch/and you will die!". Some manner of Survivor style sensation laced with the sonic issues in Vendetta would be helped immensely. As it is, the dialogue is clear and the atmosphere matter of fact.
Rather unusual for Troma, this disc is very light on the bonus benefits. Lloyd's customary intro is especially funny here, as it portrays the "generic" greeting he gives for any unnamed product or event. A rather ribald voice-over puts the proper (and improper) words in the Troma founder's mouth. There are a few trailers and a couple of ads for Troma-oriented goodies, but that's all. No behind the scenes featurette or making-of documentary. Not even a commentary track (it would have been peachy to hear Saunders wax poetic about his paunchy backside). Heck, we even fail to relive that lame load Purple Pam and the umpteenth offering of that "Kicked in the Head" video. It's about as bare bones as the titanic T gets, and tells you something about Vendetta's appreciation at the marketing level. Or maybe they just thought the film was good enough to stand on its own. Okay, you can stop laughing now.
If there is one scene that will stick in your mind long after Vendetta has lifted its leg and left its mark, it would be something that occurs toward the opening of the film. Saunder's Mason has just finished having sex with his new lover, Trish. They've been rolling around in pools of their own oozing and they seem satiated and spent. The couple discusses some minor issue, and then Trish pops the news to her already disturbed beau: his ex-wife has just been promoted. Jack takes this news the wrong way, lifts the sheet off his distended stomach and stands, stark naked toward the wall (hiding his "short comings" but exposing his huge hefty hinder), where he proceeds to throw a fit. That's right. Casting all dignity aside and wanting to express every nude nuance of his character's pained persona, Saunders weeps like a wuss and pounds the wall like he just did his gal pal, wailing for the now lost life he once had. Or maybe he's just angry over the police department's hiring policies. Whatever the case, this primal scream strip tease is just one of the 'anything for my movie' instances of short circuited spirit that infuses Vendetta with its chaotic charm. Even when it's ending goes for the goose, hoping to ambiguously question the killer's real identity, we can't erase the rotund ribaldry that's come before. Vendetta may want to be the final word in that most cheery of chosen chastisements, the act of retribution, but all you remember is the portly pogoing going on. This is Saunders mind crime against us. And sadly, we may never get a chance to get him back...the bastard.
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